One of the biggest myths of our culture is that the holidays are happy times when families come together in a loving way to celebrate. For most people, including those who like their family, the holiday season is a stressful time of year. But when family members have unresolved conflicts, differing politics and value systems this time of year adds an additional layer of stress. Many people want to avoid conflicts but aren't sure how to navigate the challenges of visiting and spending extended periods of time together. How do we navigate family gatherings so that we don't end up fighting? Below are four brain training tips for reducing the stressors this holidays.
How to manage family stress this holiday?
A client came in last week for his weekly brain training, very upset at the thought of going home to Florida for Thanksgiving. He explained that last month he had bought a thoughtful gift, an autographed copy of an athletic jersey, to give to his father at Thanksgiving in hopes of mending their historically strained relationship. But the day before he left, he heard from his sister that his dad voted for Trump. With tears in his eyes, he said that not only did he not want to give his dad the gift, now he didn't even feel comfortable going home for the holiday.
Mike's strong feelings of anger, conflict, and pain are just one example of what many people feel heading into an already challenging time of year: the holidays with family.
November and December are the most emotionally difficult months for people, despite what advertisers want you to think. As a psychotherapist, I've often thought that the kindest thing we could do for people is to skip over these two months and just head into January. Call it emotional health savings--similar to daylight savings, only instead of daylight, we'd save our sanity every year!
Brain training Tips for not stressing out
Here are four tips to help yourself navigate visits with family that focus on what you can do to make the outcomes as good as possible. Research shows that when the locus of control is outside of the individual, stress goes up. Let's focus on being authentic in our communication and building bridges rather than burning them down. This type of 'brain training' is working with our ability to be self-aware, and use our ability to see and change our thoughts and regulate our emotions as the tools for creating new and effective tools for reducing stress and managing family gatherings in a healthy way.
1. Feelings Aren't Facts
Caring for your feelings in a constructive way requires us to remember that just because we feel an emotion, doesn't mean that a) it's appropriate based on current facts or b) meant to be acted on immediately. As the wise AA slogan tells us, just because we are having very strong feelings post-election--angry, numb, fearful or anxious--doesn't mean that our family members are the cause of our feelings. Nor does it make them an appropriate bullseye for our emotions. It may feel momentarily better to yell or attack--and may give us the feeling that the "bad" have been punished or corrected--but in the end, relationships are strained and we reinforce fear-based communication.
2. Take an Emotional Inventory and Protect Yourself
In general, we do a lousy job of protecting our vulnerable feelings around family members. And when we don't, we end up exposing them and feeling like others are trampling over them. Be honest with yourself about how you are feeling going into the holidays and protect your vulnerable feelings. Ask yourself the following questions: On a scale of 1-10 how angry am I? ....how fearful am I? ....how anxious am I? Anything above a 5 needs to be protected and avoided during family gatherings. What does that look like? Let's say Uncle Bill quotes a news announcer from a contentious media source and you feel hot in the face. Instead of saying something and giving Uncle Bill control of your angry feelings, redirect yourself so that your feelings don't rise to an uncontrollable level.
Ways to redirect from inflaming anger and anxiousness:
- Stand up and walk to the bathroom and put cold water on your face and back of your neck. This helps the brain re-regulate and shift out of a stress response.
- Turn to a relative beside you and ask them a question about a topic of mutual interest.
- Look at someone in the room with whom you connect and make eye contact with him or her. Research shows that making eye contact helps decrease anxiety and increases feelings of being connected and safe.
3. Give Yourself the Power to Make It Meaningful
First, give yourself the choice as to whether you go to a family event. If you're an adult, you get to decide! And if you go, make clear to yourself the reasons for why you are attending. Then, decide what you are going to focus on during the gathering that makes it meaningful to you -- maybe it's helping with the dishes, connecting with family members you want to spend time with, getting to know the newest members, or offering food to others. When you notice a strong emotion arising, switch your focus to why you're there and take meaningful actions. Go hang out in the children's room if it's important to you to connect with the younger generation, or if being of service is important, go help set the table, or if self-care is a priority and you're feeling claustrophobic, excuse yourself and take a walk around the block if that's what you need.
4. Communicate When Calm
If there is anything about yourself that is important to communicate to others, wait until you are calm to do so. You, and whomever you want to hear you, will only benefit. Our challenge is that our feelings of anger and fear want us to act immediately, but that's only because the underlying feeling, which triggers our anger and anxiety, is fear. The biological purpose of fear is to resolve an eminent (less than a minute) danger NOW.
The key for successful communication is to see that Uncle Bill's comments are not eminent danger, even though our anger (and fear) is arising now. But actually now is not the right time to react, the holidays are a time for family to be together and find common ground in shared meals and activities. Anger and fear are not the right energy to use to resolve the problem of Bill's misunderstanding. Acting from our fear only makes communication worse. Our fear triggers others' fear and communication gets lost in an emotional pinball game rather than a respectful exchange of ideas.
Listen to the music research is showing reduces anxiety and creates calm.
The key to successfully navigating our communication this holiday season is to stay aware of our emotions. Protect your emotions from being inflamed by others, wait to act on them until you understand them better, and then communicate important information when you're calm and the listener is open to hearing what you have to say. The rest of the time, stay focused on the aspects of the holiday gathering that are meaningful to you and ignore the rest!